Now that The Karate Kid has been a beloved classic for nearly four decades, it’s impossible to imagine anyone besides Ralph Macchio in the role of Daniel LaRusso. But in a recent appearance on The Tonight Show to promote the latest season of Netflix’s Karate Kid spin-off Cobra Kai, Macchio revealed that he wasn’t the producers’ only choice for the part.
After Macchio had been cast in the role, partly thanks to his acclaimed performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, some studio executives got cold feet because he didn’t have quite enough star power to inspire total confidence. So, they decided to hold auditions for a few other popular young actors, just to make sure they had the right guy for the job. According to Macchio, “I was cast very early, but it was like one of those test deals where you’re not in yet. I remember walking by and seeing Charlie Sheen hanging out outside [producer] Jerry Weintraub’s bungalow, thinking, ‘What’s Charlie doing here?'”
Sheen wasn’t the only other actor that Weintraub looked at for the role of Daniel. Macchio also spotted, “Nic Cage, I think, and Robert Downey, Jr.” Funnily enough, Downey had previously been up for Macchio’s part in The Outsiders. There was very little chance that any of these other actors were going to land the role because the producers had all but decided on Macchio at this point, but it’s interesting to imagine that, in parallel universes somewhere, there are versions of The Karate Kid starring Nicolas Cage, Robert Downey, Jr., and Charlie Sheen. The version in this universe starring Macchio defied all expectations to become one of the biggest box office hits of 1984.
Cage wouldn’t become a movie star until he appeared alongside Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married, also directed by Coppola, which hit theaters two years after The Karate Kid. Downey’s career was already in full swing at the time, playing a bunch of supporting film roles throughout the ’80s and even joining the cast of Saturday Night Live (although he left the show after just one season). His stardom really took off in 1987, three years after The Karate Kid‘s release, with lead roles in Less Than Zero, adapted from the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name, and The Pick-Up Artist.
It’s fair to say that, while Cage and Downey have since taken on a litany of iconic roles, Macchio is still best remembered for his turn in The Karate Kid. He reprised his role as Daniel in two sequels and then, three decades later, in Cobra Kai, which originated as a YouTube Red show before being acquired by Netflix.
The Karate Kid is now available on Netflix.